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Review of UT Fracking Study Finds Failure to Disclose Conflict of Interest (Updated)

Photo by Mose Buchele/StateImpact Texas

UT Professor Charles "Chip" Groat came under fire for not disclosing significant financial ties to the drilling industry, and has resigned from the University.

Resignation and Retirement Result

The long-awaited review of a controversial study on the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” was released today, and it finds numerous errors and flaws with how the study was conducted and released, as well as University of Texas policies for disclosing conflicts of interest.

(Read more on this story in our follow-up: Why the UT Fracking Study Controversy Matters)

The head author of the study, Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat, has retired in the wake of the controversy, and the head of the Energy Institute that released it, Dr. Raymond Orbach, has resigned as head of the Institute, the University announced today.

The original report by UT Austin’s Energy Institute, ‘Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in the Shale Gas Development,’ was released early this year, and claimed that there was no link between fracking and water contamination. But this summer, the Public Accountability Initiative, a watchdog group, reported that the head of the study, UT professor Chip Groat, had been sitting on the board of a drilling company the entire time. His compensation totaled over $1.5 million over the last five years. That prompted the University to announce an independent review of the study a month later, which was released today.

The review finds many problems with the original study, chief among them that Groat did not disclose what it calls a “clear conflict of interest,” which “severely diminished” the study. The study was originally¬†commissioned¬†as a way to correct what it called “controversies” over fracking because of media reports, but ironically ended up as a lightning rod itself for failing to disclose conflicts of interest and for lacking scientific rigor.

Calls and emails to Groat were not returned at the time of this report’s publishing. His outgoing message at UT currently says, “I’m away from the¬†University¬†during the summer months, and therefore won’t be checking my voicemail.” (Update:¬†Groat responded in an email to StateImpact Texas Thursday afternoon that “I maintained that my role [on the board of a drilling company] would not influence results and that I did not do so. In fairness to me, I hope conclusions regarding this are aired.” You can read more from his response below.)

Likewise, the Energy Institute isn’t talking, either. “Dr. Orbach won‚Äôt be conducting any interviews or commenting on this matter publicly,” a spokesperson for the Energy Institute tells us via email, referring all questions to the University’s Provost. (You can read the Provost’s response below.)

The review finds no “intentional misrepresentation” by Groat, and even believes that, at the time, he was likely not violating established conflict of interest policies at the University. But his failure to disclose¬†constitutes¬†“very poor judgement,” the review says, and harmed the credibility of the report.

The University’s conflict of interest disclosure policies were¬†updated¬†in the wake of the controversy, but the review notes that “in discussions with both faculty and administrators,¬†concerns¬†were expressed about whether these policies were¬†sufficiently¬†comprehensive.”

Aside from that conflict of interest, the review finds many other errors and missteps in both the study and University policies:

  • Because of “inadequacy” in conflict of interest policies at UT at the time, “conflict of interest and disclosure policies were largely ignored.”
  • The report itself was presented as having scientific findings, but much of it was in fact “based on literature surveys, incident reports and conjecture.” The review goes so far as to say that “the term ‘fact-based’ would not apply to such an analysis” and it lacked a “rigorous,¬†independent¬†review” of its findings.
  • The summary of the study, which was widely distributed and trumpeted by a UT press release, failed to include many of the caveats within the actual report. Some of the conclusions were “tentative,” the review says, and the press release and presentation of the report at a scientific conference in February was “inappropriately¬†selective” and “seemed to suggest that public concerns were without¬†scientific¬†basis and largely resulted from media bias.”
  • The study was also not ready for distribution, as Public Accountability Initiative noted in July. The drafts in the study “were not subjected to serious peer review and therefore were not ready to be considered for public release as fact-based work.”

Photo courtesy of the Energy Institute

Raymond Orbach of UT's Energy Institute has resigned after the group became engulfed in controversy over a study of fracking.

The review calls on the Energy Institute to withdraw the study, and that the authors of the individual white papers that made the study “should be allowed sufficient time and¬†opportunity¬†to finish their work” to prepare it for independent scientific review. The review did not examine the environmental impact of fracking itself, only the actual study by the Energy¬†Institute.

After similar issues at the University at Buffalo over a report on fracking that also lacked scientific backing and failed to disclose industry ties, the Univeristy shuttered its Shale Resources and Society Institute, which released the study, last month.

While the review says that it would be “impracticable, and likely inappropriate to seek to eliminate all ties” between research and the oil and gas industry, it says that “the key is transparency.”

Both the press release and original study are not linked on the Energy¬†Institute’s¬†website, but the study is still available online.

The University said in a release today that it accepts the findings of the review, and will implement all of its recommendations.

Updates:

In an interview with StateImpact Texas, University of Texas at Austin Provost Steven Leslie says that¬† UT is “taking very strong and quick action to get our hands around the issue. These are matters that affect the credibility and the public trust relating to the university.‚ÄĚ Leslie says that the University will conduct a campus-wide compliance audit and that the Energy¬†Institute¬†will be re-structured, but not shut down.

Chip Groat, the UT professor at the center of the controversy, says in an email to StateImpact Texas that he should have made a disclosure.¬†“However, I continue to be disturbed by the assumption by many that a university faculty member with financial connections to industry cannot be unbiased,” Groat writes. “This blanket indictment isn‚Äôt fair to most faculty members or most industries. I am also concerned that my retirement is being linked to controversies related to the report. My retirement is linked to my very fulfilling position in Louisiana, which began February 1 when I took leave from the university, before any controversy emerged.¬†Since I am no longer affiliated with UT, I will leave this unpleasant episode behind me.”

Kevin Connor, Director of Public Accountability Initiative, which originally disclosed the conflict of interest in July, tells us he is satisfied with the review and the retirement and resignation of the two UT professors. “I see this as a commendable stand for¬†integrity¬†and¬†transparency,” he tells StateImpact Texas, “and I think it sets a strong example for other universities and sends a strong message to the oil and gas industry that this kind of sham research won’t be tolerated or supported by universities.”

Update, Friday Dec. 7, 2012, 10 AM:¬†In a¬†press release¬†Thursday, UT announced that Orbach had “resigned.” It did not say, however, that Orbach will be staying at UT as a tenured professor. In an interview with StateImpact Texas, Provost Steven Leslie didn’t mention it, either, saying ,”the person who oversaw the fracking report has retired from the University, and the Director resigned over this.”¬†Orbach has in fact only resigned as head of the Energy¬†Institute, effective December 31. A UT spokesperson maintains that the exclusion of this information wasn’t intentional. UT has since updated the press release, noting Orbach’s continued¬†employment.)

Update, Friday Dec. 7, 2012, 11:30 AM:

A spokesperson for the University of Texas at Austin says the school will update its press release on the review to note that Raymond Orbach will continue as a tenured professor at the University. The spokesperson also says that while Chip Groat had been on leave this year, he was expected to return.

“Dr. Groat has been on leave since February but the University believed he would be returning,” a University spokesperson says in an email to StateImpact Texas. “He submitted his resignation letter in late November and it was accepted by the university shortly afterwards at a time when stakeholders had begun to hear what the panel findings might include.”

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Below is a copy of the original report by UT’s Energy Institute:

Disclosure: StateImpact Texas is part of KUT Austin, a unit of the University of Texas at Austin.

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